People receive some form of feedback regarding their own behavior or specific actions in all areas of everyday life that are subject to a continuous development or improvement process. However, the reaction to feedback – especially critical feedback – varies depending on the person and situation involved. Many people also find it difficult to give constructive feedback to those around them, and it is often unclear what the implications of such feedback should be. This raises the question of when feedback is perceived as something positive and how people can benefit from using adequate feedback. This post will look at why feedback is often rejected and how it should be structured so that it can have a positive impact on the (sustainable) learning process.
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It should be emphasized at the outset that there is no universal template for how feedback should be used, as situational and personal influences must always be taken into account. Nevertheless, at least a definition of the term feedback is needed at this point. In their influential work, Hattie & Timperley (2007) use a conceptual understanding of feedback as
“information provided by an agent (e.g., teacher, peer, book, parent, self, experience) regarding aspects of one´s performance or understanding.”¹
What is striking here is that in this understanding feedback does not have to be given by a person, but can also be given through various media or even one’s own experiences. It is also difficult to view feedback as something isolated, as the goal-oriented approach of the feedback giver often leads to an instructional character. However, the overall goal here is to reduce or close the gap between the feedback receiver’s current level of understanding and the desired level of understanding. This can also be applied to the goal achievement process, as appropriate feedback helps to better understand where one is in this process. Assistance is provided through both positive (confirming) feedback and negative (corrective) feedback.² With regard to such support in achieving goals, but also in acquiring new knowledge or skills, two different forms of feedback can essentially be distinguished. Feedback can either have a directive or guiding character, in that it contains explicit recommendations for action, or it can rather support the general learning process, in that it is oriented towards general factors that can be applied in a variety of ways. In addition, feedback can be distinguished by various attributes such as time factor or specificity. Comments can be either immediate or delayed, and can vary in how action- or situation-specific they are made. It should be noted that there is no right or wrong here, as correct application is always situation-specific. For feedback to be effective, three key factors must be considered: the feedback is actually needed by the recipient, the recipient has the opportunity to consider the feedback in the context of his or her own action, and the presence of the recipient’s willingness to receive and apply the feedback.³
As already mentioned, feedback does not necessarily have to have positive consequences. In fact, the opposite is often the case in practice. A central cause of this is the different perspective of the parties involved – the giver and the receiver – since their perception is always linked to their own point of view. While the recipient is often subject to self-overestimation, the perception on the part of the giver tends to be distorted by the fact that situational influences are often neglected and instead only the person is considered. This often leads to criticizing the person rather than the specific behavior of the person in a given situation. The resulting emotionality of the subject matter quickly leads to defensive behavior on the part of the feedback recipient, who thus attempts to protect himself.⁴ In order to avoid this problem, feedback should always meet certain requirements, which are considered in more detail below.
First of all, it should be emphasized at this point that constructive feedback always aims to improve the situation for everyone involved and to promote progress and development. If all participants are aware of this basic idea and (critical) feedback is communicated respectfully, there should be no reason for the recipient to react defensively. The decisive factor here is that criticism is always based on situational behavior or certain behavioral patterns and does not directly attack the person. Although the perception of the feedback giver may differ from that of the feedback receiver, these discrepancies regarding subjective perception can likely be resolved through effective communication. In some circumstances, both parties in such a situation may even learn from the feedback process. If a person feels that constructive feedback is needed to change the current situation, it might be useful to first justify why the current situation is not sustainable and why change is needed. A conscious attempt by those involved to assess the situation objectively may be sufficient in itself to increase acceptance of constructive feedback. However, merely creating a basic level of acceptance is unlikely to be sufficient. In order to achieve change, it is necessary for the recipient to be able to accept the feedback and apply it in relation to his or her own behavior. Thus, it seems logical that feedback should often be so specific or action-oriented that concrete implications for the recipient can be derived from it. This could be particularly relevant if the feedback relates to explicit content or actions. However, if the goal is to promote the self-determination and autonomy of the recipient, it is also conceivable that feedback should be formulated in more general terms.
Adequate feedback plays an important role in the learning process, provided that the content conveyed can actually be implemented by the recipient. In the relationship between the feedback giver and the feedback recipient, it is often the case that the giver is qualified to the extent that the recipient can benefit from the competence of the giver by means of the feedback and that this has a positive effect on his or her own development. Constructive feedback should thus not be understood as criticism of one’s own person, but rather as assistance for one’s own learning and development process. If a person has the intention to develop further in a certain area or with regard to certain skills, it could thus be a valid approach to evaluate one’s own behavior and to seek feedback from people who are in a position to evaluate one’s own behavior with regard to a clearly defined goal and to make suitable recommendations for action.
Feedback is an important part of the individual learning process and can promote personal and professional development. It is important to bear in mind, however, that feedback can also have negative consequences, especially if the focus of the criticism is not on behavior but directly on the person. To avoid defensive reactions on the part of the feedback recipient, feedback should always be constructive and targeted, and communication should be respectful and – if possible – objective. In addition, it should always be kept in mind that there is no template for perfect feedback, as situational and personal influences must always be taken into account and approaches may differ depending on the objective. Appropriate feedback that includes actionable recommendations or suggestions for improvement is desirable for anyone who intends to learn and develop.
¹ Hattie, J., & Timperley, H. (2007). The power of feedback. Review of educational research. 77(1), page 81.
² Hattie, J., & Timperley, H. (2007). The power of feedback. Review of educational research. 77(1), 81-112.
³ Shute, V. J. (2008). Focus on formative feedback. Review of educational research. 78(1), 153-189.
⁴ Cannon, M. D., & Witherspoon, R. (2005). Actionable feedback: Unlocking the power of learning and performance improvement. Academy of Management Perspectives. 19(2), 120-134.